Chapter 55 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

Peter, Paul, and Bert sat at their usual table in the Saturn Cafe, playing Icehouse. Icehouse with three players is definitely not as good as with four, and as a result, they played rather apathetically. Dave had told them earlier that he wouldn't be hanging out with them this evening, since he had a date with someone he called 'The Princess'. So The Four were only three.

Peter leaned back in his chair, and just as he did so, he heard an odd popping sort of sound. To his amazement, he saw Bill suddenly materialize in the Saturn Cafe, standing a couple of yards away from the Pit. He ran over to the table where the Three sat, halfheartedly playing Icehouse.

"Norman!" he shouted, "Look!"

Peter was instantly out of his chair, cavorting around Bill. "Bill!" he shouted, "What happened to you? Where have you been?"

Various other Cafe patrons looked on this scene with distaste. Paul stood up, and tugged on Peter's arm. "Hey, man, keep it down. You're being uncool."

Peter sat down and attempted to restrain himself. Bill sat down, too.

"I've been in the Future," said Bill.

"Yeah, your Time Machine worked, right?"

"Yes," said Bill, "and look!" He held out a piece of metal.

It was the about the size of a normal piece of paper, although slightly longer. It seemed to be a solid plate of white metal, about an eighth of an inch thick. Words and a picture were etched into the metal. It seemed like a very permanent printed document.

"This is a patent," said Bill, "U.S. Patent Number 6,936,585 to be exact." On closer examination of the plate, Peter noticed the number along with the title "Apparatus for Traveling Through Time." The patent bore Bill's name and featured a drawing of a device not unlike the one he had shown them in the Asylum a couple of months before.

Bill took the metal plate back from Peter, and held it, gently, in his hands. "My first patent," he said. His voice was reverent, awed. "I've been waiting for this for many, many years. I'm a real inventor now."

"Well, congratulations!" said Peter. Bert and Paul echoed the sentiment.

"Thank you, thank you," said Bill.

"What's the deal with the metal paper?" said Paul.

"Hmm? Oh! This is how documents are stored now. I mean, in the Future." He handed the plate to Paul. Paul noticed a series of small numbered squares imprinted in a row along the bottom of the plate. "You see," said Bill, "the words and pictures are not actually etched onto the metal, it just looks like they are." He took the metal plate back from Paul and touched a couple of the numbered squares. The etchings on the metal plate vanished and were instantly replaced by a completely different set of words and pictures. "This document can store 4096 pages of printed text, and display any of them instantly. It can also be reprogrammed with different pages. It looks just as good as regular printed paper, but it takes up less space, is completely reusable, and doesn't require the destruction of trees."

"Wow!" said Paul.

Bill leaned towards them, sort of conspiratorially. "It's put photocopying completely out of business. Man, I sure wish I had the patent on this!"

The others laughed, and Bill stood up.

"Where are you going?" asked Peter.

"To see my parents," said Bill. "Got to tell them the news!"

"But when will you be coming home?"

"Home?" asked Bill, somewhat confused. Then he said "Oh," and sat down again. "Norman, I live in the Future now." He paused, letting this sink in.

"You mean you're never coming back?" asked Peter.

"Not permanently. I'll be back from time to time, you know, to visit, and to do research... but I doubt if I'll ever actually live in this time period again."

Peter looked glum. Bert ate a Tringo.

"Well," said Bill, standing up again, "I really do have to go. Sorry to rush off so quickly, but I'm a very busy man these days." He pulled a small device out of his pocket, a device about the size of a pocket calculator, only thicker. He pressed some of its buttons, and then turned back to face Peter and the others. "See you later," he said, and waved. Then he pressed another button on his little device, and vanished.

Suddenly, Bert said, "Hey, wait a minute! We should get him to take us through time somewhere!"

"Yeah!" the others agreed fervently. But it was too late; Bill was gone.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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